Monday, September 21, 2009

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel: A Novel by Maureen Lindley - 304 pgs

Book CoverWhen Manchu princess Eastern Jewel is just eight years old, she is sent from China to Japan for spying on her father and his concubine. Arriving at the home of her step-father, the head of a powerful family in Japan, the girl is neglected and despised by most of her new family. The independent and headstrong Eastern Jewel, who is renamed Yoshiko Kawashima, doesn't let this bother her at all and quickly becomes enamoured of her new country, vowing to live her life loyal to Japan. As the girl grows in her adopted family's home, she becomes distressingly unconventional. From her many exploits with men, her indulgence in opium and her outspoken attitude, the young Eastern Jewel becomes notorious among the Japanese in her step-father's society. When she is finally sent to Outer Mongolia to become the obedient wife of a prince, she begins to formulate plans for escape from both her new husband and the frozen tundra she has been exiled to. Escaping to Peking, Eastern Jewel is living a life of luxury when she is approached by the Japanese government and asked to become a spy for them. Soon she is placed in ever increasing positions of import and is using her skills to influence the exiled Chinese royalty. But the clock is ticking for Eastern Jewel, and soon she will be called upon to account for her traitorous actions toward her country. Eastern Jewel's tale, rife with erotic and political intrigue, paints the story of one of the most notorious women in China's history.

Judging this book as a work of historical fiction, I would have to say that it was a bit lacking. That's not to say that this was not an entertaining book, it was just very different than what I had been expecting. The majority of the book revolved around the private life and romances of Eastern Jewel, and highlighted many of her sexual escapades, instead of focusing on her as a historical figure. The information about her role in history was there, but in this book, the portrait of her life was painted in such a way as to make those aspects seem secondary to the steamy secrets of her private life. Although I would have been interested in reading more of the actual history of Eastern Jewel, I found that I mildly enjoyed the alternate story that was presented in the book. The author wrote very knowingly and realistically about the Chinese Princesses many consorts and conquests, and I really got caught up in the drama of her personal relationships.

Eastern Jewel was a very interesting character to read about because she had a lot of qualities that made her different from most women. She was very conniving and cunning, and used her sexual prowess to her own advantage, but she didn't have the heart or sympathy to genuinely connect with anyone in her world. Though she was able to get along famously with men, she couldn't ever really love any of them in the way most other women do. She also seemed to pride herself on being cold and remote, and never let anyone gain any advantage over her through the use of emotion. All of this was very entertaining, but it was not historical in any sense of the word.

During one section of the book, she is moved into the temporary palace of the exiled emperor and his wife and begins her attempt to inveigle herself with them for political purposes. That section was really well done, and had the rest of the book followed the same format, it would have been a different reading experience. Instead the book seemed to be a chronicle of eroticism and materialism, alternately jumping between the two most of the time. The story was written with artistry and the language and details were tantalizing, but the fact remains that the historical aspects of this story paled in comparison to the libidinous tale of Eastern Jewel's bedfellows. At times I could almost begin to see the story trying to begin to change direction, but the author was never really able to come full circle and get the tale moving into the realm of historical fiction and out of the realm of eroticism.

There also wasn't a lot of cultural detail in this story. Though the story takes place in Japan, China and Mongolia, there was not really enough information in regards to the style of dress, cuisine or furnishings that surrounded the characters, which made the book seem a little flat and featureless. There was some improvement in the sections on Mongolia, which were better defined and described than any other section of the book. I would have loved to have seen more descriptions of oriental life and more details that would have given the book more cultural distinction. As it was, all these minor complaints I had began to add up into a group of items that impacted my enjoyment of the book. Although it was an interesting read and written very well, I couldn't help but feel that this could be any woman's story, and could have taken place in any locale and during any time period. There just wasn't much here to set this story apart, and I think that many people who are considering reading this book will be misled into believing that this story has historical significance, when in fact it does not.

If you are hoping to read something that really gives a an accurate perspective on historical importance of the famous Chinese princess Eastern Jewel, I don't think this is the book for you. If, however, you are looking for a subtle tale of eroticism that features an exotic area of the world and some very eclectic characters, I think this book would fit the bill. I wish that I would have known more about the true nature of this book when I picked it up because I may have had a more generous reaction to it. Taken for what it was, it was both a heady and involving read, but I feel that it was somewhat spoiled for me because it presented itself as something rather different. Recommended with reservations.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


bermudaonion said...

I'll keep your review in mind when I read this. Thanks!

Steph said...

Hmmmm, it sounds like this book had strong/interesting characterization, but was lacking in depth and appropriate context overall. I agree with you that the concept of the Eastern Jewel and her strong personality is really interesting,and I could see it making a compelling read, but it sounds like the author sometimes lost her focus and chose to highlight the less interesting thing. I actually don't know much about Asian history, so I'm torn as to whether the lack of insight would be less bothersome to me, or would be even more of a hindrance!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've been wondering about this book; not sure I'll read this one.

BTW: You won one of my giveaways; congrats. please email me mailing info. thanks

Marie Cloutier said...

I'm sorry it wasn't what you expected. It looks intriguing though and I might have to check it out. I've been seeing it a lot at the local indie bookstore I haunt. :)

Esme said...

You summed up the book well-I really enjoyed the book but there was more information on her sexual conquests than the historical aspect of the time.

Booklogged said...

Beautifully written review. You express yourself so well. That's a skill I don't have but one that I can appreciate in another.

Meghan said...

This is kind of a shame. I was really hoping for more of a cultural context, not just "ooh look how scandalous!" I do have it so I will probably read it anyway, but now I'd better revise my expectations.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, it irritates me when a book that is really one thing tries to trick me into thinking its something else. Thanks for the heads up on this one!

The Tome Traveller said...

Oh, seems like this one isn't quite what I thought it would be. Might have to bump it down the TBR pile. Thanks for your excellent review!

Suko said...

Very incisive review--thank you!

Enjoy your weekend.

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